In the second part of our coverage of the impact of the 2010 General Election on the political landscape in Northern Ireland (following on from Colin Murray’s post on the state of unionism), Human Rights in Ireland welcomes a guest contribution from Kevin J. Brown of Newcastle University, in which he analyses the state of nationalism and republicanism in the wake of May 6th.
On the face of it, the first Thursday in May was a good day to be a supporter of either Sinn Fein or the SDLP. The General Election in 2005 had seen the two parties of the green persuasion reach a new highpoint in terms of the number of seats won (8 out of 18) at a time when unionism was at its most bitterly divided. Whilst unionism remained divided in 2010, both nationalist parties went into the election with pundits predicting that they could each record net loses. However, when the votes were counted (and in some cases recounted) on the 6th and 7th May both parties had retained the seats they had won in 2005 (Sinn Fein 5; SDLP 3). This included Sinn Fein holding on to Fermanagh and South Tyrone (by 4 votes) despite a split nationalist vote and opposition from a ‘unionist unity’ candidate; and in Belfast South the SDLP’s Dr Alistair McDonnell retaining his seat with a comfortable majority despite the constituency being nominally unionist (i.e. having more Protestants than Catholics – sectarian head counting is alive and well in the psephology of Northern Irish politics).
Across the six counties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein between them out polled the two main unionist parties (the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists and the DUP) for only the second time in the electoral history of Northern Ireland (42% to 40.2%). The first time this occurred was in 2009 in the European Elections and as with then the presence of the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice on the ballot paper hurt the two principal parties of unionism. Also for the second time in two years Sinn Fein topped the poll with the largest share of the votes across the province (SF 25.5%; DUP 25%; SDLP 16.5%; UCU 15.2%).
On the face of it these results could be depicted as simply representing the continuing march forward of Irish nationalism and republicanism at the expense of a disunited unionism. However, if we look a little closer at the results a more complex mosaic is found which raises some important questions not only for members of the nationalist/republican community of the north of Ireland but for the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. With the end of the IRA’s campaign of violence, Sinn Fein has been able to stretch their appeal outside of their narrow political base of republican communities. This has allowed them to supersede the SDLP as the main party of Irish nationalism in the north. In the 2010 election Sinn Fein received over 60,000 votes and nine percentage points more than their rival. The SDLP have been out polled by Sinn Fein in every election over the last decade (and there have been plenty of them). The triumph of Sinn Fein has been most striking in working class areas of Belfast where the SDLP vote has all but collapsed. Correspondingly in more affluent areas of the city such as South Belfast the SDLP vote has held up.
Whilst the decline of the SDLP has been less marked outside of Belfast, Sinn Fein continues to encroach on their support throughout the six counties and it is often in working class areas where this has been most evident. Increasingly the labels ‘republican’ (favoured by Sinn Fein) and ‘nationalist’ (favoured by the SDLP) are becoming identifiers of one’s class rather than an indicator of differences in fundamental constitutional beliefs.
Since the advancement of the peace process the SDLP has been faced with the dilemma of how to remain distinctive and reach out to voters who are being wooed by the better funded and more organised Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein as an avowedly socialist and Marxist party has always been to the left of the SDLP which has subscribed to social democracy. But when the parties differed on the more fundamental aspect of whether to kill in the name of a united Ireland these differences did not come to the foreground. The current SDLP strategy appears to be to stem the decline. If the SDLP are to retain the confidence of their base, which is now effectively the Catholic middle class, the temptation may be for them to portray themselves increasingly as the voice of the ‘respectable’ middle class; a proportion of the population which is unlikely to be Marxist in its outlook.
Whilst many of its policies on issues such as civil liberties would be described as left of centre (e.g. support for a Bill of Rights) the SDLP’s attachment to social democracy has been called into question as many within the party have openly toyed with the idea of forming a political alliance with Fianna Fail, the predominant centre right party, south of the border. Interestingly when one SDLP assembly member recently suggested a merger with Sinn Fein rather than engendering a similar open debate within the party he had the party whip withdrawn.
On policy, there is some evidence that the SDLP is beginning to adopt the mantle of the representatives of the ‘silent nationalist majority’. One issue which has divided northern Catholics often along class boundaries has been academic selection. Whilst Sinn Fein and the SDLP have both actively sought the scrapping of the 11+ school transfer test, the SDLP has gradually softened its line on academic selection thought to be popular with the middle classes. It currently advocates selection at 14 rather than 11. The devolution of policing and justice will present the SDLP with further opportunities to portray themselves as to the right of Sinn Fein, particularly because of Sinn Fein’s obvious discomfort with pursuing a ‘law and order’ agenda.
If the SDLP were to pursue a more centrist or centre-right policy agenda they may find that they resonant with a section of the nationalist population in a way which they currently are failing to do. They would also find ready bedfellows in the Ulster Unionists/Conservatives suggesting the potential for possible co-operation. This may even have the effect of bringing Sinn Fein closer to the centre left than it currently is. There has always been a left/right divide in Irish nationalism/republicanism, with the gradual normalisation of politics in Northern Ireland this divide may well crystallise in the political manifestos of Sinn Fein and the SDLP. With unionism also in flux the process of normalisation is likely to significantly alter the political map in Northern Ireland over the coming years.